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Human Rights in the Dust

The policies of the Bush administration were not just horrific in themselves or to others— they may also have brought to an end the human rights movement as we know it.

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Recently, in a Washington Post op-ed, Mark Danner wrote: "However much we would like the [torture] scandal to be confined to the story of what was done in those isolated rooms on the other side of the world where interrogators plied their arts, and in the air-conditioned government offices where officials devised 'legal' rationales, the story includes a second narrative that tells of a society that knew about these things and chose to do nothing." Danner, who did as much as anyone to help uncover what the Bush administration was up to in its secret prisons abroad, should know.

According to the latest Gallup Poll, a bare majority (51%) of Americans now favor some kind of major investigation "into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration." On the other hand, 55% "still believe in retrospect that the use of the interrogation techniques was justified." Of course, who knows what those percentages might have been if Gallup's pollsters, in their questions, had used the word "torture," rather than—like most of the mainstream—skittering away from it in favor of a variation on the chosen phrase of the Bush administration, "enhanced interrogation techniques."

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While Americans remain deeply divided on the use of, investigation of, and prosecution of Bush-era torture practices, at least the subject has now burst into the center of political discussion and debate. In the wake of the Obama administration's release of yet more documents from a seemingly bottomless archive of Justice Department "torture memos," writing on the subject has been fiery, argumentative, provocative, despairing, or some combination of the above. More important, though, it's been pouring out in all its variety to remind us that what was done in our name can still be repudiated in a variety of ways.

Just a few suggestions, if you want to plunge in. You might start with international human rights lawyer Scott Horton's No Comment blog at Harper's Magazine on-line. The guy's been all over the subject for a long, long time and his material is unimpeachably on target (and smart). Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory column at Salon.com is also always worth a careful look, as is Nieman Watchdog, a site I value that has often focused on both torture and press coverage of it. (The site is run by Dan Froomkin, whose Washington Post column, White House Watch, is a daily must-read.)

At his AfterDowningStreet website, David Swanson has been writing passionately and brilliantly about why a special prosecutor should be appointed and Bush officials, right up to the former president, should be charged with crimes, while over at Truthout, Elizabeth de la Vega, has offered a provocative discussion of why a special prosecutor should not (yet) be appointed. (Both, by the way, have been TomDispatch regulars.) And don't forget Mark Karlin, who edits Buzzflash.com, and has been penning powerful pieces lately on why Bush and Cheney (et al.) should someday be brought up on actual murder charges. And that's just to scratch the surface of this explosive subject.

And then there's Karen Greenberg, TomDispatch regular, Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, and author most recently of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days. In a piece that is part analytic, part confessional, and totally original, she frames the torture debate in a larger way, in terms of the death of the human rights movement. (To catch an audio interview in which she discusses those "torture memos," click here.) Tom

Kiss the Era of Human Rights Goodbye

What Bush Willed to Obama and the World
By Karen J. Greenberg

These days, it's virtually impossible to escape the world of torture the Bush administration constructed. Whether we like it or not, almost every day we learn ever more about the full range of its shameful policies, about who the culprits were, and just which crimes they might be prosecuted for. But in the morass of memos, testimony, op-eds, punditry, whistle-blowing, documents, and who knows what else, with all the blaming, evasion, and denial going on, somehow we've overlooked the most significant victim of all. One casualty of the Bush torture policies—certainly, at least equal in damage to those who were tortured and the country whose laws were twisted and perverted in the process—has been human rights itself. And no one even seems to notice.

So let's be utterly clear: The policies of the Bush administration were not just horrific in themselves or to others, they may also have brought to an end the human rights movement as we know it.

One need only glance at the recently released Justice Department memos, which have caused such a media storm of late, for the story of what has happened to human rights in American hands to become clearer. It is not just, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently wrote, that "our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it." No less important, though hardly commented upon, is this fact: the United States succumbed to the exact patterns of abusive state action that the human rights movement was created to outlaw forever. What the Bush administration pursued, after all, was a policy of state-sponsored, legally codified dehumanization designed to torture (and in some cases destroy) individuals, which was to be systematically and bureaucratically implemented in the name of the greater good of the country, however defined.

The documents that the Obama administration and Congress have just released make this conclusion impossible to avoid. These include four memos written by the Office of Legal Council between 2002 and 2005, the Senate Armed Services Committee Report on Interrogation Practices, and the Senate Select Committee Narrative on the Chronology of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) Memos. Added to this must be the publication by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books of a previously secret International Committee of the Red Cross report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay.

As a group, these documents reveal that the pattern of systematic abuse at the hands of the American government during George W. Bush's Global War on Terror has been a textbook case of human rights violations designed and implemented at the highest levels of government. First, there was the assault on the English language, a necessary initial step in the process of changing the national mindset of a country about to become a first-class human-rights abuser. As Susan Sontag once wrote in a piece about the Bush administration and its pretzeling of language, "Words alter, words add, words subtract."

Creating American-style Torture Techniques and Manuals

Just as the U.S. military at Guantanamo was instructed in January 2002 never to refer to that detention facility as a "prison" and never to call the inmates "prisoners," so the infamous OLC August 1, 2002 "torture memo" that came out of the Justice Department, and was made public in 2004, officially banished torture to the dust heap of history when it came to American actions. It was now to be considered only physical pain of "an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure," or mental pain which produced "lasting psychological harm."

Now, that memo's twin has just been released, providing more detailed reasoning about the redefinition of torture. This second August 1, 2002 memo gives us an even more comprehensive picture of the rationale behind the insistence of the Justice Department that the techniques being applied to detainees in the War on Terror in no way amounted to torture.

Examining specific techniques of coercive interrogation, all of which would technically violate the U.S. Anti-Torture Statute [18 U.S.C. §§ 2340-2340A], Justice Department officials craftily reasoned their way out of old, well-accepted definitions of universally agreed-upon acts of torture. Thanks to creatively worded explanations, this new August 1, 2002 memo declared that neither "the waterboard," "walling," nor being placed in a box amounted to torture. In situation after grim situation, torture, it was explained, just wasn't the right word.

The focus of the just released memo was the interrogation of al-Qaeda terror suspect Abu Zubaydah. According to the memo, Zubaydah simply wouldn't feel pain or suffer repercussions as others might have from these redefined acts of torture. Similarly, extreme "stress positions" could be used on him because he "appears to be quite flexible despite his wound," and because he had already proven he could withstand other abuses. "You have orally informed us that you... have previously kept him awake for 72 hours. From which no mental or physical harm resulted." The Justice Department lawyers, informed by the CIA that Zubaydah was in exceptional physical and psychological condition, conveniently reasoned that the techniques in question wouldn't harm him—and, of course, they would be oh-so-helpful to the longer term torture goals of the Bush administration.

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